RIVKAH BROWN reviews the controversial new Beyoncé album, and doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.
The weirdest thing about Beyoncé’s most recent album is that is made the front page of today’s FT. It is impossible to consider the album itself without first mentioning that it is a marketing miracle: the singer launched the album exclusively to iTunes overnight on the 12th December, and, remarkably, with no pre-publicity. Unremarkably, 80,000 copies were sold in the first three hours of the release of the imaginatively titled BEYONCÉ (though in a way it’s amazing it’s taken her so long to release a self-titled album), which has swiftly climbed to the top of the Billboard charts. Yet again, Beyoncé has proven that she has the world wrapped around her little finger: publicity or no publicity, her albums sell like hot cakes.
Yet this is perhaps not the (only) point Beyoncé is trying to prove. In fact, her main motivation is much more interesting: to get people out of the habit of cherry-picking singles, and back into albums. ‘Now people only listen to a few seconds of song on the iPods and they don’t really invest in the whole experience’. Though there is an element of inevitability to the skyrocketing sales of any album to come out of the Casa del Carter (a fact Jay-Z proved this summer by selling half a million copies of Magna Carter Holy Grail despite having already given away 1million copies for free), it seems Beyoncé is nevertheless quite boldly going against the grain by producing a deliberately anti-marketable album, one that is difficult to dip in and out of, and almost requires appreciation as a whole.
The songs demonstrate characteristic versatility– she does social commentary in ‘Pretty Hurts’ (‘Perfection is the disease of a nation’), defiant in ‘***Flawless’ (‘bow down bitches’), mushily maternal in ‘Blue’ (‘When I look in your eyes, I feel alive’). Beyoncé’s professed aim of speaking directly to her fans isn’t only clear in her marketing tactics. This new directness is also apparent in the singer’s lyrics: ‘I’m not feeling like myself since the baby,’ she says in ‘Mine’, a statement whose openness is startling even for a ballad.
Despite this, it’s hard to feel the songs themselves really impress. ‘Beyoncé’s 14-song album,’ says the FT, ‘is accompanied by 17 videos’. Clearly the FT have missed the point of what is being dubbed a ‘visual album’. With BEYONCÉ, the audio is more an accompaniment to the video: listen to the tracks themselves and you’re more than likely to be disappointed. Many are deeply repetitive (‘Blow’ mind-numbingly so), while others suffer from embarrassing lyrics: in ‘Superpower’, Beyoncé describes her ‘tough love’ as ‘Like a shark’ (bad) and (worse) ‘Like a bear’.
And is it just me that thinks Bey ought to have grown out of lyrics like ‘Let me sit this ass on you’ (‘Rocket’) and ‘I can’t wait ’til I get home so you can turn that cherry out’ (‘Blow’)? It’s not Beyoncé’s expression of her sexuality that I take issue with, more the way in which she presents female sexuality as a gift to men, as existing ultimately for the satisfaction of men. Ironically, Bey might have paid closer attention to the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose TED talk she quotes in ‘***Flawless’: ‘We raise girls to see each other as competitors –not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.’
Bring the videos in, and you get a different picture. Not least because my favourite track on the album, ‘Grown Woman’, is video-only. A close second after ‘Grown Woman’ is the ‘found’ footage filmed in Rio featured in the video for ‘Blue’. Otherwise, little to report. The video for ‘Mine’, whose unusually artistic style massively improves what is otherwise a bland song, being a notable exception. ‘Blow’ is overkill (not to mention a tacky version of ‘Countdown’), while ‘Drunk in Love’ and ‘Yoncé’ are just…Rihanna. While the act of producing seventeen music videos might in itself be a noteworthy feat, few are individually excellent.
Kudos for artistic bravery, Bey, but the album, it depresses me to say, is a little sloppy.